Obamas’ Uninvited Guests Prompt an InquiryBy HELENE COOPER and BRIAN STELTER
New York Times
November 27, 2009
WASHINGTON — The Secret Service is investigating how a couple aspiring to be reality-show celebrities managed to appear at President Obama’s first state dinner without being on the guest list, provoking questions about security at the White House.
The inquiry was begun after a Virginia couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, slipped past multiple layers of high-level White House security Tuesday night and managed to rub shoulders, literally, with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, among others, at Washington’s most exclusive social event this year.
Edwin M. Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service who spent his Thanksgiving Day dealing with phone calls from reporters, would not discuss the investigation in detail but said the initial focus was on “a Secret Service checkpoint which did not follow proper procedure to ensure these two individuals were on the invited guest list.”
While the question of how well the president is protected is never a casual one, it has taken on special resonance with Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president. Even when he was a candidate, his security rivaled that of a sitting president, because of both the size of the crowds he attracted and the number of threats. Secret Service agents began guarding him 18 months before the November 2008 election, the earliest a candidate has ever been provided protection. It was not clear how close the couple got to the Obamas.
Representative Peter T. King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, called for a Congressional investigation, saying in an interview Thursday that he was shocked at the lack of security at the White House on Tuesday night. Since 2003, the Secret Service has been part of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Obviously, somebody dropped the ball,” said Mr. King, of New York. “I mean, you’re talking about the president of the United States and the vice president and a powerful world leader, the prime minister of India.” The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was the guest of honor.
Mr. King said he had seen people turned away from similar White House events, including a congressman who brought his daughter instead of his wife, whose name was on the list. He also raised concerns about the Secret Service’s assertion that Mr. Obama was safe because all guests passed through metal detectors.
“The fact they went through the magnometer is incidental,” he said. “They could have had anthrax on them. They could have grabbed a knife from the dining room table.”
He added, “The next time it will be a far worse reality than a reality TV show.”
Mr. and Mrs. Salahi, meanwhile, remained silent Thursday about their White House visit.
Producers for Bravo, the cable channel, have been following and filming the couple this fall. The channel confirmed that Michaele Salahi was being seriously considered for the coming series “The Real Housewives of D.C.”
In a statement on Thursday, Bravo said Half Yard Productions, the producer for the series, had been under the impression that the Salahis, two polo-playing devotees of Washington’s social swirl and online social networks alike, had been invited to the dinner.
The “Housewives” cast “has not been finalized,” Bravo said. “Michaele Salahi is under consideration as a cast member; as such, Half Yard Productions were filming the Salahis on that day. Half Yard was only aware that per the Salahis they had been invited as guests.”
A White House official, informed of Bravo’s statement, said that was not the case. “We’ve already confirmed that they weren’t invited,” he said.
A publicist for the couple, Mahogany Jones, said they would not comment formally for now, but issued a statement.
Their counsel, Paul W. Gardner, “states emphatically that the Salahis did not ‘crash’ this event,” the statement said. “We look forward to setting the record straight very soon.”
Mr. Gardner, an entertainment lawyer, did not respond to a message left at his Baltimore office.
Brian Williams, the anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and a guest at the dinner, saw the Salahis arrive when he was waiting in a line of cars to enter the East Gate of the White House. In interviews broadcast on NBC on Thursday, Mr. Williams said the couple’s vehicle was turned away, adding, “Actually the first ring of Secret Service security had worked.”
“After their vehicle was turned away, they hopped out,” Mr. Williams said. “What attracted our attention was there was at least one camera trailing them. And a makeup woman got out and fixed the woman’s hair and then started powdering the man’s forehead.”
The Salahis apparently then joined a line of dinner guests at an entrance for pedestrians. What happened at checkpoints at that entrance is the focus of the Secret Service investigation.
Not two hours after the party, Mrs. Salahi had on her Facebook page a dozen photos of her and her husband with Washington’s social elite.
There the couple were, with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty of the District of Columbia “and his lovely wife,” Michelle (Mrs. Salahi is holding Mr. Fenty’s elbow). There Mrs. Salahi was, with three Marines in full-dress attire (her hand is touching the collar of one Marine, who smiles at the camera). And then there she was, her sari glittering, snaked around a grinning Mr. Biden, her hand resting on his chest, his arm wrapped around her waist; and both Salahis, with a smiling Mr. Emanuel, described on Mrs. Salahi’s Facebook page as “Chief of Staff of the United States White House.” It was not clear who took the pictures for Facebook.
The White House has said the Salahis were not seated for the dinner. It was not clear Thursday when they left the White House on Tuesday, and under what circumstances.
Whether or not they wind up on “Housewives,” the couple have certainly acted as if they were stars. They are now scheduled to be on “Larry King Live” on Monday.
On her celebrity-minded Facebook page, Mrs. Salahi telegraphed her television aspirations, writing, “Get Ready Kelly Ripa — Don’t you want a friend to tag team Regis!” She also suggested herself as a co-host for NBC’s “Today” show. On Facebook, she has more than 4,000 friends.
“There are definitely people that lobby very aggressively to be on shows,” said Michael Hirschorn, a former executive vice president for original programming at the reality-centric VH1 channel and a founder of Ish Entertainment.
The stunt brought to mind another set of fame-seekers: the Heene family of Fort Collins, Colo., who mesmerized the nation for several hours last month after setting aloft a homemade saucer-shaped balloon — and the notion that their 6-year-old son was in it — in an apparent effort to gain attention from television producers.
Mr. Hirschorn said prospective reality stars were becoming smarter about “self-producing,” knowing they had to inject drama into the shows.
“At this point,” he said, “there must be what, a thousand reality personalities on TV at any one time? So they know they have to stand out.”
Even so, Mr. Hirschorn added, this “would seem extreme to me.”
Janie Lorber contributed reporting.